Firehouse incident with noose was a hoax

The Baltimore Sun

A firefighter who reported finding a knotted rope and a threatening note with a drawing of a noose in an East Baltimore station house last month had placed the items there himself, city officials said yesterday.

The man was suspended last week for performance-related issues and will likely face additional punishment, fire officials said. Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Police Department and for Mayor Sheila Dixon, said the man admitted to the hoax and will not face criminal charges.

Officials identified the firefighter who they say acknowledged writing the note as Donald Maynard, a firefighter-paramedic apprentice who is black. Maynard could not be reached for comment.

The rope incident sparked outrage two weeks ago and prompted a federal investigation into possible civil rights violations. It was the latest in a series of incidents that have cast the Fire Department in a poor light over the past year, including the death of a recruit in a training exercise and accusations of racism.

The news of the hoax came a day after a report released by the city's inspector general found that the top performers on two recent Fire Department promotions exams likely cheated amid lapses in testing security.

A black firefighters group had called accusations of cheating racially motivated after union officials questioned the test scores. But the investigation found that five African-American firefighters had studied by using a 2001 exam, which is against test protocol.

On Nov. 21, a handwritten note and a rope were discovered about 1:30 a.m. by two Fire Department employees - one black and one white. It read, "We cant [sic] hang the cheaters but we can hang the failures. NO EMT-I, NO JOB." A small stick figure with a noose and the word "Stop" were drawn below the message.

The note appeared to refer to the cheating investigation and a push by top fire officials to compel emergency medical technicians to become certified as paramedics. Maynard was among those whose jobs were at risk.

In a written statement yesterday, Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. said Maynard had admitted to "conducting a scheme meant to create the perception that members within our department were acting in a discriminatory and unprofessional manner."

"If the department upon investigation found Mr. Maynard's alleged claims to be factual, I would have acted swiftly and severely," said Goodwin, who said last month he would step down at the end of the year. "I will do the same thing regarding Mr. Maynard's unfortunate act of misconduct."

Kevin Cartwright, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said that Maynard's punishment had not been determined but that he could be fired.

Clifford, the spokesman for Dixon, said she was "pleased to find out that, in fact, there wasn't a threat of that nature made at the firehouse." He said the mayor is disappointed in the firefighter.

"It's a terrible thing to be worried that firefighters are treating each other that way, and it's good to know they're not," he said.

Yesterday, the leaders of the two city fire unions denounced Dixon, whose initial reaction to the reported incident was to deplore what she called "an act of hatred and intimidation."

Stephan G. Fugate, head of the city fire officers union, said Dixon's reaction contributed to racial tensions. He said members of the community became hostile toward firefighters after the mayor "came out and, in effect, said racism is running rampant."

Union leaders also criticized the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Vulcan Blazers, a group that represents black firefighters, saying they, too, provoked racial tension by rushing to judgment.

"To put it mildly, this time we're not going to let it go," said Fugate. "The reaction from the NAACP, the mayor and the Vulcan Blazers was sickening, and we're going to demand an apology."

But Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter, said the fact that such an incident could occur shows that pervasive racial problems persist in the department.

"It really saddens us to hear that evidently things have reached a stage that even an African-American does an injustice to himself and his own people as a result of a negative culture in that department," Cheatham said when asked to respond to the unions.

Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers, when informed that the incident was a hoax, said, "I'm extremely upset, as well as hurt. I believed the person who told me [that the incident was legitimate] was telling the truth."

Fugate said Maynard had been with the department for about six years. The union leader said that that is well beyond the time for an apprentice to have advanced to a more skilled classification.

Because most of the calls for service in the city are medical calls, the department now hires only paramedics who are trained to provide a higher level of care. Goodwin had said that those who had not gained their paramedic certification were "on the bubble" in regard to keeping their jobs.

The racial incident at the Herman Williams Jr. fire station at East 25th Street and Kirk Avenue was the second this year. In May, firefighters at the station came under scrutiny for an incident involving a deer head that had been decorated with an Afro wig and gold chains. Allegations of racism proved to be unfounded.

It has been a tumultuous year for the Fire Department. In February, recruit Racheal M. Wilson died in a training exercise that was found to have violated dozens of national safety hazards. The department was also the subject of an internal investigation for an off-the-books purchasing account that circumvented city requirements.

Racial issues have also simmered. In 2004, the department was pressed to revamp its testing and recruiting practices after criticism of an all-white recruit class.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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